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Posted December 2020

The year that was

2020 review │ We failed to see it coming, the death toll, the lockdowns, the job losses, the economic malaise. And we still do not get the full picture. The United States and the United Kingdom, two countries hit hardest by covid-19, show the full impact the coronavirus crisis had on the brewing industry.

How will we remember this momentous year? As Europe weathers the second lockdown, severe curfews and various bans, a weary resignation has descended upon us. Trying to remain level-headed, I freeze-frame images from before – Ischgl, the Tyrolian resort now notorious for its truly crazy superspreader apres-ski; coffins getting loaded onto army trucks in Bergamo, Italy; prisoners in orange suits digging makeshift graves in New York. I see myself walking down Munich’s deserted streets wearing a face mask for the first time in my life and wondering how the Asians, habitually donning these things, manage to prevent their glasses from steaming up.
I remember receiving photos from an eerily deserted London and my friends’ gardens in bloom.
I recall their joy when the restrictions were gradually revoked during the summer months and their subsequent dismay over rising rates of infections in the autumn.

My kaleidoscopic memories are not wholly glum. Before travelling to Australia in March, I shook my head in disbelief over media reports that people had been carrying years’ worth of toilet paper out of supermarkets. But that was only until I was in Australia myself, and helped a friend to stock-pile on dog food because his dog’s preferred brand was already in short supply. Escaping to Europe at the last minute, I saw that during my brief absence the supermarket shelves had been wiped clean of pasta and tomato sauce. What were people thinking?

As Zoom meetings replaced the hubbub of normal life, I was much amused to hear that new business etiquettes had to be observed. Professional women had to carefully chose their Zoom outfit (onesies are a no-no) and worry about their “Zoom face” (Botox helps, I was told). According to Instagram, they also made progress at baking sourdough bread and taking up knitting (as Michele Obama apparently did). Ignoring all these I have spent my involuntary domestication just doing my job. Despite all of us working remotely, Brauwelt reliably came out on time, both online and in print.

What makes 2020 such an unusual or strange year is that the coronavirus crisis, in my perception, seems to have halted the passing of time. The circuitous response to the pandemic in Europe – from lockdown, to easing, back to curfew and lockdown, as was outlined in Tomas Pueyo’s “Hammer and Dance” strategy – has kept us suspended in an anxious present. That is what we mean by saying that “our lives have been put on hold”. It is an experience that we have never lived, but have seen in film. As fiction became reality, so every day turned into a coronavirus “Groundhog Day”, a fantasy movie from 1993. What was unimaginable or unthinkable even a year ago, despite SARS and MERS, makes us slowly go crazy. Feeling stuck in the here and now, we feel deprived of even an inkling of closure. Therefore, all our hopes – and European policies – rest on a vaccine. Letting the virus roam freely, or putting us all under a four-month lockdown, as Melbourne did to bring infection rates down to zero, are no-go options in this part of the world. Although there are encouraging signs that a vaccine will be available next year, it could still take another two years before all of us, who want and need it, will get it.


Lest we forget

If my philosophical musings on the coronavirus crisis, memory and time, smack of privilege and slight inconvenience (no travelling, few social contacts) rather than of real and big worries over jobs and making ends meet, you are right. But as a chronicler of the brewing industry I have kept up with the dramas in our industry as they unfolded during the full lockdowns: from the urgent calls for volunteers by hop growers in the spring, to desperate publicans sitting on cellars of unsold beer, to hard-up microbrewers having to let go of staff.

Even after the easing of lockdown restrictions, social distancing rules meant that pubs had to operate under tough new guidelines, while beer-related festivals had to be cancelled, including Munich’s famous Oktoberfest. All this had dire consequences for brewers. Draught beer sales tanked and export sales whittled away. For the first six months of 2020, the world’s major brewer, AB-InBev, reported that its beer sales had declined by 14 percent, translating into a loss of 34 million hl beer, and that its turnover was down by 12 percent. In money terms, some USD 4.5 billion in turnover (over 2019) had vanished into thin air.

But things could have been worse. In South Africa, the lockdown was accompanied by a ban on alcohol sales, which initially lasted for more than three months, and was only finally revoked in August. Apart from the ten microbreweries (out of 200) that have already closed for good, the prohibition cost the local alcohol industry an estimated USD 1.1 billion in lost sales, as locals took to moonshine, or homebrewing pineapple beer. Recipes for this heady tipple were widely shared over the internet.

2020 has been a struggle on an unprecedented scale for nearly everybody in this industry. Luckily, the apocalyptic predictions that thousands of US craft brewers could go out of business this year, have not materialised. Nor that one in three pubs and bars could shutter in Europe alone. However, many have a death foretold – just not yet observed.

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